National Geographic: Brazilian Investigators Cracking the Case of Missing One-of-a-Kind Snake

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published May 7, 2014

With its abundant rare species and remote locales, Brazil has long been known as an epicenter for wildlife trafficking. But that's changing, thanks to a group of dedicated investigators who are pursuing smugglers to the ends of their jurisdiction and beyond.

In 2006 firefighters in the Niterói district of Rio de Janeiro stumbled across a boa constrictor. But this was no ordinary boa. It was the world's first known—and remains the only known—wild leucistic specimen of Boa constrictor constrictor, better known as the red-tailed boa. The snake was just a few weeks old.

Leucism is a condition in which pigmentation is reduced but not entirely absent, as in albinism. The young boa appeared white, but it had dark eyes. Because the white color would attract predators, its chances of surviving in the wild were slim.

Authorities brought the snake to the Niterói Zoo, a private foundation that rescued and rehabilitated injured wild animals. Shortly afterward, a YouTube video announced the find to the world.

That's when the trouble started.

"Boa Holy Grail"

As the only one of its kind, the white boa was coveted in the reptile trade for its ability to propagate uniquely colored descendants, or "morph" snakes.

Almost as soon as the video was posted, collectors in online forums expressed their desire for the snake's progeny, with specialists valuing the rare specimen at $350,000 to $1 million.

One American snake breeder, Jeremy Stone, was captivated and visited Brazil to see the "boa holy grail."

He wanted to buy the snake and take it back to the United States for breeding, but he knew he'd never be able to do so—at least not legally. Brazilian law allows exportation of a wild-caught snake only with a permit, and obtaining a permit for this particular boa seemed to be a pipe dream.

"I got a Special Call from a friend," he later wrote on his website. "This was the most amazing Boa Constrictor I have ever laid my eyes on, and we quietly worked out negotiations to obtain the animal."

In 2009 Stone set out to breed a similar leucistic boa. He called it his Princess Diamond project.

Breeding snakes to produce unusual color combinations is popular. "I'm trying to find the rarer, the funner, the coolest looking," Stone said in an Internet radio interview. "I want stuff that pops out. That's the stuff that keeps me going."

When a snake with a recessive gene, like leucism, is paired with a normal one, the resulting offspring will be heterozygous (or het), meaning that it won't exhibit the trait but will carry the gene for it. Over generations, if both parents have the recessive trait and pass it on, that trait will appear in their offspring.

Stone's initial attempts were unsuccessful, but by 2010 he'd produced a handful of babies. In 2011 he began offering Princess Diamond snakes for sale. Prices ranged from $12,500 to $25,000—ten to a hundred times higher than for other boas—reflecting the commercial value of snakes with the potential to have entirely white offspring.

Snake Missing

In 2011 Brazil's National Environment Agency (IBAMA) closed the Niterói Zoo for mistreatment of animals. Their inspection also revealed that three-quarters of the zoo's 635 animals had disappeared, among them the white boa. IBAMA agents questioned the zoo's administrator, Giselda Candiotto, who said she'd taken the boa home and that it had died.

IBAMA agents doubted her claims. They wondered why the carcass of such a rare animal would be trashed rather than sent to a research facility.

Niterói Zoo's veterinarian confirmed that he'd cared for the snake for a year at Candiotto's house but that one day she said not to come because it had died. He said he should have done a necropsy, but he never saw the dead snake's body.

IBAMA officers notified the Brazilian federal police (BFP) about the possibility of smuggling and provided a comprehensive report detailing the snake's disappearance and where it might have gone.

Operation Lucy

The BFP's environmental crimes division launched an investigation into the snake's disappearance. They called it Operation Lucy. Key support came from the division's offices in Rio de Janeiro and Boa Vista, in Roraima state; its central authority for international legal compliance; the INTERPOL authority in Brazil; the Superintendency in Manaus, in Amazonas state; and IBAMA.

IBAMA had found photos and videos of what seemed to be an identical snake on several Internet venues—YouTube, online forums, Facebook—all connected to American snake breeder Jeremy Stone.

The first step was to confirm that Stone's white boa, Princess Diamond, was the one from Brazil.

While Stone claimed his snake was a different subspecies (Boa constrictor imperator rather than Boa constrictor constrictor), the sleuths believed that because those two types of boas are essentially identical, this was a ruse by Stone to throw them off the track.

So BFP forensic scientists used zoometrics—body marks and measurements—to compare videos and photographs of the Brazilian snake and Stone's. The similarities were remarkable. Both had the rare leucism gene. Their scales were white, but the irises of their eyes had dark pigmentation. Both had black spots at identical locations on their backs, left sides, and right cheeks. And both had identical yellowish stains on their nose and face.

Suspicions Confirmed

With strong suspicions that Stone's snake was the Brazilian original, investigators next had to prove that it had been smuggled out of the country.

Searching immigration databases, they found that Stone had traveled to Rio de Janeiro in 2006, probably to visit the Niterói Zoo, and again in January 2009.

The latter trip raised red flags. Entry records showed that Stone and his sister, Keri Ann Stone, had entered and exited Brazil on foot on the same day (January 22) at a little village (Bonfim) in the extreme north of the country, on the border with Guyana.

"That did not make sense for me," said Franco Perazzoni, a special agent with the BFP. "Why would this guy come to Brazil and spend just a day in a little village in the middle of the Amazon?"

In addition, four days earlier authorities had questioned Stone and his sister at the Manaus airport. Officials had suspected the two of drug trafficking because the sister was wearing a fake pregnancy belly (it had a hollow compartment), which neither she nor her brother could adequately explain. Also, they both had multiple tickets out of Brazil by various modes of transportation, a ploy smugglers often use to avoid surveillance.

Phone records of zoo administrator Candiotto proved she was in Manaus at the same time as Stone, and that her husband, José Carlos Schirmer, who also worked at the zoo, traveled with Stone that same day.

Examination of their banking records showed a deposit at that time of 500,000 reais (about $250,000).

"The fact is," Perazzoni said, "that Stone came to Brazil in 2009, the same year the Brazilian leucistic boa constrictor disappeared from the Niterói Zoo and the same year that he started his Princess Diamond project in the United States."

Searches and Arrests

On September 5, 2013, Brazilian authorities searched the homes of Candiotto and her husband in Niterói and Ipanema. That same day, U.S. federal authorities scoured Stone's premises in Utah and seized eight of the white boa's babies. The boa itself was nowhere to be seen. Stone claimed it had died in January 2013 and was buried in the backyard.

A short time later, on September 24, the BFP arrested Candiotto and her husband on charges of international wildlife trafficking and smuggling. They also issued an arrest warrant for Stone on the same charges, which was disseminated via an INTERPOL red notice.

On January 8, 2014, Stone and his sister were indicted in the United States District Court in Utah for unlawfully importing the white boa constrictor. The indictment says Stone brought the snake from Brazil into Guyana, where a veterinarian provided a false certificate of origin saying it had been caught in Guyana and that Stone then used this false information to import the boa (along with others) into the U.S. It further notes that Stone bred the white boa and sold its offspring to buyers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Where's Princess Diamond Now?

One of the stolen boa's young was sold to Italian snake breeder Attilio-Franco Gariboldi, who by June 2013 had succeeded in producing a white leucistic boa just like Princess Diamond.

Over time other breeders, too, could produce their own leucistic boas from Princess Diamond's offspring, which they, like Gariboldi, presumably had purchased in good faith.

Brazilian authorities have two theories about the disappearance of the boa. One is that the animal is alive and was sent somewhere out of reach of law enforcement, perhaps to a colleague of Stone's in Canada or Europe. The Brazilians note that Stone posted many videos of Princess Diamond during 2013 and provided no notice of its death. Or, and this seems more likely, given how difficult it is to keep these snakes healthy in a confined space, the boa is already dead.

"My main concern now is to find Princess Diamond and get it and its offspring back to Brazil," said BFP special agent Perazzoni. "Boa breeders worldwide must be alerted that smuggling Brazil's patrimony is wrong. We will not tolerate things like that."

See article on National Geographic.